Grave School Lessons

Forensic anthropologists study the process of human decomposition at Western Carolina University’s Forensic Osteological Research Station to understand and solve real-life situations, including murder and mishaps, to learn how a person died and what happened to their remains.

CULLOWHEE — As Dr. Cheryl Johnston unlocks the door to her research location she is quick to remind me, “This is something that most people never see. You will understand why it takes a special kind of person to do this kind of work.”

Dr. Johnson has a lab inside a building on Western Carolina University’s campus, but she performs most of her research on a forested mountain slope near campus. There, on a piece of land surrounded by chain-link fencing topped with razor wire as well as wooden privacy fencing, Dr. Johnston’s work begins at the end — not the end of the day, but the end of life.

“A facility like this is needed for us to understand how humans decompose," explains Dr. Johnston, who is one of 70 board-certified forensic anthropologists in the nation. “If we are called into a case where there is a person who is deceased and they’ve been in the environment for a while, until now it has been an educated guess how long they have been there. So we’re trying to refine that and collect some data.”

Dr. Johnston uses forensic anthropology to give a voice to people who no longer speak. It applies anthropology and human biology to examine human remains, most often in criminal cases.

Dr. Johnston is the director of the Forensic Osteological Research Station and Western Carolina University. It’s one of only six facilities in the nation where researchers study human decomposition. Some of the remains come from people who individually donate their remains for research. Most of the remains come from family donors who either can’t afford a funeral or are estranged from the deceased and don’t know what to do with the person’s remains. All of the bodies are respectfully laid to rest on the grounds of the facility. 


Most of the bodies are left on the surface to decompose, although a few are buried in shallow graves. There, they are exposed to all of the elements; from heat and humidity to cold, rain and even wildlife. But the science is found in the natural environment.

“If a person dies and is clothed or unclothed, or buried in leaves or not, we need to make sense of that because how a body decomposes is different in each circumstance,” explains Johnston. “So we makes notes of everything — body position, medical devices — we document it all when the donation arrives.”

Once the bodies are documented, they are left alone and Mother Nature takes over. Students return to make notes and document what happens with photos. At first, they visit daily, then weekly, then every two weeks. Dr. Johnston wants to keep the bodies in the facility as long as possible because what happens in late stage decomposition is not well known.

Most of the students who are working on the research project are planning careers as crime scene investigators and forensic scientists. They know the work at the facility helps authorities understand what happens in real life scenarios, from accidents to crime scenes. Understanding the process of human decomposition can help pinpoint how and when a person died and what happened to their remains after death.

So, next to a surface grave covered in branches, grasses and leaves, students set up a recovery plan for the remains in a grave that is almost two years old. That’s about the time it takes for a body to decompose, leaving nothing but bone. Students mark out a grid, and use archaeology field techniques to systematically scrape away layers of soil. 

Rebecca McKerlie is scraping a plot of soil with a garden trowel.

“I am looking for bones left behind,” explains McKerlie, as she uses a hand broom to scrape soil into a dustpan and then dump it into a bucket. McKerlie is a senior in forensic anthropology.

“A lot of times, the bones of the hands and feet are small and easy to miss. So after the main collection, you have to trowel the soil down a bit to sterile soil to make sure we don’t miss anything,” McKerlie adds.

“You are supposed to trowel down about 10 centimeters but that’s not to say if you find something you stop,” says Carry Nichols, who is a senior in forensic anthropology. “You want to keep going until you don’t find anything else.”

During the recovery process, the geography of the area and its vegetation are noted in the report along with the location of the bones and changes in soil color and compaction.

The soil that is dug up with trowels, brooms, and dustpans is then sifted through a screen. Laurel Hobenwarter, also a senior forensic anthropology student, reiterates that there are some skeletal remains that are not big enough to be seen with the eye.

“You don’t want to miss anything,” says Hobenwarter. “It’s very important not to miss any remains that you can get. Some skeletal remains are not big enough to actually see with the eye unless you sift through the dirt.”

Students follow the bones and the process from start to finish; from the forest, to collection, to cleaning, processing and cataloging. The remains are curated and cataloged at the Western Carolina University Human Identification Lab. On this day, the students have returned to the research station because they discovered some bones were missing during an inventory of skeletal remains from recently recovered bodies.

There are 206 bones in the human skeleton. Each one is studied and recorded. And each one has a story. Researchers are learning more and more about how better to tell it.

“One thing I think is important when I’m dealing with students, and law enforcement and dog trainers, is that we never forget this was a person,” says Dr. Johnston. “It’s somebody who has a family and friends who are still out there someplace. And I’ve been criticized for that. Some people say that’s not very objective, but this is the kind of research where you have to balance objectivity with sensitivity and ethical issues. So I use Mister and Misses when discussing the cases because that’s the way I would address this person if they walked into my lab.”

Related Resources: